Artisanal pastas--dried noodles made (at least ostensibly) in small batches by traditional methods and sold for higher prices--seem to be everywhere these days. Shop at any high-end grocery store and you’ll find at least three or four brands.
Think of them as the new olive oils: rustic, simple ingredients that have been raised to new heights by careful manufacture and by cooks always hungry for the next level of refinement.
But spaghetti is such a simple ingredient, can there really be that much difference among brands? Can one really be worth three or four times the price of another? And what does artisanal pasta mean, anyway?
Shopping online and in local markets, we rounded up eight examples of pricey spaghetti of varying degrees of “artisanality.” Then we threw in three commonly available ringers to test how much difference there was between the high-priced stuff and the rest.
We cooked 2 ounces of each spaghetti in a quart of rapidly boiling water to which we’d added a tablespoon of salt. When the pastas were done, we drained them and dressed them with a tablespoon of olive oil.
At first, choosing among these naked noodles seemed like picking different shades of beige. By themselves, they were nearly identical, differing mainly in slight degrees of wheat flavor and resilience. But it gradually dawned on us that while the pastas themselves were pretty tough to tell apart, some of them seemed to have a much stronger olive oil flavor than the others.
Intrigued, we pulled out our five favorite brands and tasted them again dressed only in a tablespoon of cheap bottled tomato sauce. With three of them, the result was exactly what you’d expect--nice pasta flavor accompanied by thin, scorched sauce.
But two of the samples were different. With these, this same sauce tasted full and rich. What had seemed scorched with the other pastas emerged as a deep roasted flavor. It was the spaghetti equivalent of those expensive Riedel wineglasses--flavors and aromas seemed amplified and clarified.
When the brands were revealed, both of our favorites were made by Latini--the regular red-box brand and the Senatore Cappelli type made from an heirloom wheat variety. That Latini fared so well was no shock; it’s the dried pasta of choice for most of the great Italian restaurants in this country.
But why do these noodles work so well? One reason is obvious once you look closely enough: The surface of the raw artisanal noodles are rough, rather than smooth. This is true in varying degrees; the Latini noodles were by far the roughest, almost to the point of being grainy.
After the starches have swelled during cooking, the difference isn’t so obvious. But it’s still enough to allow the spaghetti to hold more sauce, amplifying its flavor.
Dried pastas have had their ups and downs. For a period in the 1980s, they were scoffed at by foodies as inferior to fresh. That is over. Since the ‘90s, imports of Italian dried pasta, already high to begin with, have increased by an average of 7% per year.
To begin with, it’s important to recognize that dried pastas are not fresh pastas that have been dehydrated. It’s not a raisins and grapes thing. Except for dried egg noodles, which are a very small part of the market, dried pastas are made from different ingredients, in a different way. Fresh pastas are made from eggs and soft wheat flour ground from the seeds of the wheat variety Triticum vulgare and are rolled out. Dried pastas are made from water and hard semolina flour ground from Triticum durum and are extruded--pressed through dies.
In fact, by Italian statute, dried pastas can contain nothing but semolina and water. With many Italian firms opening factories in the United States to manufacture the noodles they sell here, one way to tell if it’s the real thing is to read the ingredient labels. If they contain additions such as niacin, iron or folic acid, they were made in America, no matter if the label reads “Italy’s No. 1 Pasta.”
Of course, there’s nothing inherently superior about Italian-made pastas. In fact, many of them have their roots in this country. Though Italy is the world’s leading producer of durum wheat, it cannot grow enough to keep up with the world’s hunger for Italian noodles. This year Italy will import about 650,000 tons of durum wheat from the U.S.--more than half of what is grown in this country.
This is nothing new. Until the early 20th century, Italy’s great sources of durum wheat were the Ukraine and Volga River valley. The very best pastas were labeled “Taganrog,” for the Russian port city on the sea of Azov, near the Black Sea, from which they were shipped. This source dried up in the 1920s during the great Russian famines brought on by drought and Stalin’s collectivization.
This in part led to Mussolini’s drive to improve the nature of Italian wheat varieties, which was spearheaded by the pioneering wheat geneticist Nazareno Strampelli. One of his key developments was the Senatore Cappelli strain, which has been revived commercially by Latini.
Still, the secret to great pasta isn’t just the material it’s made from, it’s also the way it is made. That is a process that has been refined over hundreds of years and is still being refined today.
First, the flour and the water are kneaded together. If you have ever tried to do this at home, especially using gluten-rich semolina flour, you know how difficult it can be.
In the old days, the dough for dried pasta was kneaded in a long wooden trough called a madia. To work the stiff dough, men would tread on it with their bare feet. One batch could require a full day’s walking, with the men perched atop the dough holding onto a rope for balance.
Anna del Conte observes in “Portrait of Pasta” (Paddington Press, 1976), “As people commonly went barefoot in those days, one could wonder if therein was the secret of historic flavors, never to be recaptured!”
In 1833, Ferdinand II, the despotic King of the Two Sicilies, ordered an inventor named Cesare Spadaccini to find a better method of kneading the dough. Spadaccini worked on it for a year and then unveiled his new invention: a mechanical man with bronze feet.
This, perhaps predictably, went nowhere. More successful was a water-powered kneading machine introduced in Naples at about the same time that used a series of paddles mounted on rods.
Once the dough is formed, it must be pressed through dies and cut into shapes. Originally, the dies were cut out of wood, then bronze. Teflon dies, which were introduced in the ‘70s, were considered a major advance because they were much easier to clean and, because of the reduced friction, kept the dough cooler.
After the noodles have been cut into shapes, they must be dried. This is not nearly as simple as it seems. Moisture evaporates only from the surface, and once the surface of a noodle has dried out it hardens, preventing the moisture from the interior from evaporating. Left to its own devices in a stable climate, pasta would form a dry crust around the outside and leave the interior wet, prone to acidification and hospitable to unfriendly bugs.
It takes a combination of drying and moistening to allow pasta to dry thoroughly, and the alternating hot winds and moist sea breezes around Naples are among the reasons so much of the industry has historically been centered there.
With industrialization, pasta makers began to use two closed rooms, one hot and dry and one cooler and more humid. Today’s factories have streamlined that process with climate-controlled drying chambers that operate much faster.
All this detail is of more than historical significance. Indeed, the technologies used in cutting and drying pasta are at the heart of the differences between artisanal and mass-market spaghetti today.
The rough surface of the artisanal pastas, which help to make them so friendly to sauces, are created by the old-fashioned bronze dies. The new Teflon ones may speed production, but they also make a noodle that is too slippery to grip sauce in the same intimate way.
Less well-known is the difference in drying technology. While modern methods can dry pastas in less than four hours using temperatures around 185 degrees, most artisanal makers favor an old-fashioned process that takes nearly two days to dry the pasta at between 105 and 115 degrees.
The debate between the two factions is quite heated itself. The new ways, the Latinis say, result in “nonexistent flavors and aromas and a standardized ‘plasticized’ pasta.” On the Professional Pasta Web site (www.professionalpasta.it), the industrialists slap back, saying, “the use of low temperatures in drying pasta ... not only has no sense at all, but is an absurdity from the productive point of view.”
But it’s hard to attribute the Latini pasta’s sauce-adhering consistency solely to the low-temperature drying or the brass dies, since other pastas that claim to use both techniques did not fare as well in our tasting.
Carlo and Carla Latini, a husband-and-wife team who have been making pasta only since 1990, live in the small town of Osimo in the region of the Marches--more or less the inside of the knee of the Italian boot.
Like many born-again artisans, they do not come from pasta-making families. Carlo’s family grew mainly vegetables, as well as some wheat. The Latinis got into the pasta trade via the wheat connection.
In fact, the Latinis don’t actually make the pasta they sell under their name. They grow the wheat (and have some of it grown under their supervision) and then have it milled and turned into pasta according to their exacting specifications at Pastificio Mennilli, a small family-run factory in Abruzzo.
Their continuing passion for wheat is obvious, not only in their plans to release every year four “grand cru” pastas labeled by wheat variety. On their Web site, they describe the Senatore Cappelli as if it were a movie star: “A beautiful plant; it stands [almost 6 feet] tall ... the ear is of a warm ash blond, it has a long black mustache and a very big grain.”
Perhaps that, as much as anything, is the definition of artisanship--the ability to look at a stalk of wheat and see a leading man.